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From the Introduction by Carl Eric Link
Waldegrave is dead. Murdered. His assassin unknown. His friend and confidant, a young man named Edgar Huntly, desperately searches for clues to the identity of the assailant, but his investigations lead to dead ends. Then, late one night, not long after the murder, Edgar discovers a strange man digging a hole underneath the same elm tree where the slain Waldegrave had been discovered. A moment later the stranger turns from the elm, walks past Edgar and heads deep into the tangled woods of Norwalk. Thus begins America’s first great murder mystery. Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799) is a dark tale of frontier violence, murder, revenge, and the deep psychological obsessions that break down human rationality. Written in the tradition of the late eighteenth-century European gothic romance, but adapted by Charles Brockden Brown to American themes and subjects, Edgar Huntly is the crowning achievement of one of America’s first great novelists.
When Charles Brockden Brown died in 1810 at the age of thirty-nine, he joined the unfortunate list of American authors whose careers were cut short through brevity of life, but unlike many of Brown’s peers in that tragic fraternity, there is little in his biography to suggest that if he had lived longer, we would have enjoyed more—and perhaps even greater—fictional productions from his pen. After a brief apprenticeship in the mid-1790s in which Brown produced at least one novel, Sky-Walk; or, The Man Unknown to Himself, as well as a few minor pieces, including a couple of incomplete or failed attempts at long narrative fiction, Brown produced the six novels that comprise the bulk of his aesthetic offerings in a burst of creative energy lasting a mere three years. But for that brief period, Brown was America’s first professional novelist, earning his living through his writing.
Brown’s parents probably never had such a career in mind for their son. He was born in Philadelphia on January 17, 1771, to Quaker parents. Brown’s constitution was weak, and he was of frail health and given to periods of depression throughout his life. He discovered books early in his adolescence, and through his reading Brown encountered many of the notable authors and philosophers of the eighteenth century. By his late teens, Brown had begun to write poetry, with designs on writing several epic poems built around American themes and subjects. As a young man, Brown set out to study law, but found the enterprise unfulfilling, and ultimately gave up his studies in 1792 and turned his attention more directly toward the profession of letters. During this period, Brown established friendships with a number of philosophers, radical thinkers, and contemporary authors—among them the dramatist William Dunlap, who would, in 1815, become Brown’s first biographer—and he was introduced to some of the more liberal and progressive ideologies of the day. By 1795, Brown was beginning to work on several novels, one of which, the aforementioned Sky-Walk, he finished in 1797. Sky-Walk was never published, and only a fragment of the novel is extant, but the narrative—which dealt, in part, with somnambulism—was, as the evidence suggests, a prototype for Edgar Huntly. That same year, Brown finished the first two parts of Alcuin, a dialogue in which Brown argues for the extension of equal rights to women. These two parts of Alcuin were published in 1798, and soon thereafter Brown wrote parts three and four of the dialogue, but these later—and arguably more radical—parts were not published until after his death.
The publication of Alcuin marks the beginning of Brown’s most productive phase. With the manuscript of Sky-Walk lost in 1798, Brown’s first published novel was the gothic romance Wieland; or the Transformation, which appeared in the fall of that same year. Generally considered, along with Edgar Huntly, Brown’s finest novel, Wieland tells a tale of madness and religious obsession that calls into question human perception and casts doubt on the human capacity for reason. Wieland was followed in quick succession by several other gothic romances, starting with Ormond; or, the Secret Witness in 1799, the first part of Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 in 1799, Edgar Huntly in 1799, and the second part of Arthur Mervyn in 1800. During this same two-year span Brown also published a number of essays and smaller works and began to edit and publish The Monthly Magazine and American Review. Two more novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot, both epistolary in form, were published in 1801. Then, as quickly as it came, Brown’s career as a novelist effectively ended, although his career as an editor, publisher, and writer did not. From 1801 until his death from tuberculosis in late February of 1810, Brown published and edited several magazines, was a frequent contributor of poems, essays, and other short pieces to other periodicals, and spent much of his time engaged in writing political pamphlets. Brown married Elizabeth Linn in 1804, and they had four children together before his untimely death.
Brown is best known today for the four gothic novels he published in the eighteen-month span from late 1798 to early 1800. What one finds in a gothic novel by Charles Brockden Brown is a disorderly and confused world filled with dark entanglements and obsessions. The human mind, in Brown’s world, is ill equipped to penetrate the swirl of mysteries one finds in Nature. His protagonists are often alienated figures who undergo epistemological crises in which their education and beliefs—the truths by which they have lived their lives—are challenged. In this manner, Brown’s gothic novels serve as responses to the rationalist epistemologies of the Enlightenment and a challenge to the Enlightenment assumptions underlying United States political philosophy. They also mark the emergence of a dark romanticism in American literature that would reach its apogee a generation later in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. But these later authors had one advantage that Brown did not: they wrote at a time when there was a small, but emerging tradition of American fiction writing. Their path had been paved a generation earlier by authors such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Rebecca Rush, and, before them, Charles Brockden Brown and his contemporaries such as Sally Wood, the Maine author who published the gothic novel Julia and the Illuminated Baron in 1800, Susanna Rowson, whose sentimental novel Charlotte Temple was a best seller in 1794, and Hannah Webster Foster, whose sentimental novel The Coquette (1797) was the industry standard for American epistolary novels for many years.
The task Brown’s generation had before it, and which no later generation experienced in quite the same manner, was the effort required to build a national literature—to create a distinct and uniquely American literary tradition of sufficient quality to stand in good stead when compared with other national literatures—especially those of Western Europe. It is this task that rests behind Brown’s brief notice “To the Public” that prefaces Edgar Huntly. When Brown drafted Edgar Huntly, the United States was only a decade removed from the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the subsequent debates that preceded the ratification of the U.S. Constitution by the states in 1787 and 1788. In 1799, the country was still heavily embroiled in nation-building, and the debates held in the Constitutional Convention had spilled over into an electorate divided between federalism and Jeffersonian republicanism. In the midst of this political and cultural climate, writers were faced with the challenge, as Noah Webster put it in 1783, to make America “as independent in literature as she is in politics.” To this end, Brown consciously set out to use distinctly American materials in the construction of his novel. He states that in Edgar Huntly he has replaced the usual conventions of the gothic romance—“puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras”—with “incidents of Indian hostility and the perils of the Western wilderness,” which are more American. In this decision, Brown paved the way for a host of subsequent authors, including James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, and Lydia Maria Child, whose novels turn to similar subjects to help build a substantial and uniquely American national literature.
With the exception of a few brief concluding letters at the end of the novel, the majority of Edgar Huntly consists of a long letter that Edgar writes to Mary Waldegrave, Edgar’s fiancée and the sister of his recently murdered friend, Waldegrave. The tale Edgar records in this letter can be divided into two halves. In the first half of the letter, Edgar focuses on his interactions with Clithero Edny, an Irish immigrant working for the Inglefields, a neighboring family in the “Norwalk” region of Pennsylvania (just north of Philadelphia) that isthe fictional rural American setting for most of the action in Edgar Huntly. It is Clithero whom Edgar discovers at the beginning of the novel digging—while sleepwalking—underneath the elm tree where Waldegrave was found slain. As Clithero tells his tale in chapters four through eight, we are introduced to Clithero’s benefactress, Mrs. Lorimer, her evil twin brother, Arthur Wiatte, her daughter, Clarice, and her once-estranged suitor, Sarsefield. Sarsefield forms a bridge between Clithero and Edgar, for this mysterious, learned, and well-traveled gentleman has served at different times as a friend and mentor to both of the young men. The second half of Edgar’s long letter to Mary focuses on Edgar’s attempt to find his way back home after waking up in a cave deep in the Pennsylvania wilderness. It is in this part that the Native American presence in the novel comes to the forefront. Norwalk, we discover, has long been a site of ongoing border skirmishes between the settlers and the Delaware Indians, who, with the exception of an elderly Native American woman known as Old Deb, have evacuated the area but occasionally make violent forays—sometimes under the direction of Old Deb—into Norwalk. As this long letter to Mary comes to a close, the people involved—Edgar, Clithero, Sarsefield, and the Indians—draw together. The three concluding letters are between Edgar and Sarsefield, and they bring some closure to the tale of Clithero Edny.
Edgar Huntly has generated its fair share of critical attention over the years, and opinions on this enigmatic novel have varied widely. To some, it is Brown’s best work—a complex novel in which Brown explores the dark, hidden corners of human psychology—while to others it is a flawed novel written in too much haste with a convoluted plot ripe with inconsistencies. This latter view—widely held by earlier twentieth-century critics—seems in recent years to have assumed the minority position among critics who now quite commonly veer toward the former opinion. What all critics generally agree upon is that in Edgar Huntly Brown makes strong use of a common convention in gothic fiction: the doppelgänger, or psychological coeval. At the core of many gothic narratives is a clash of good and evil, a moral dichotomy that pulls upon a central protagonist who struggles to make sense of the moral condition of humankind while confronted with a disorderly and darkened world. Authors of these studies of psychological darkness and moral ambiguity often embody the clash of good and evil through a mirroring or doubling of the main character, thus allowing the doubled character an opportunity to come to terms with his or her own moral nature through a confrontation with a psychological twin. The doubling in Edgar Huntly is pervasive, but the central pairing in the novel is that of Clithero Edny and Edgar Huntly. Both are sleepwalkers, both are befriended—even mentored—by Sarsefield, both treasure mysterious documents, both wander through the forests of Norwalk in the dead of night. The question that the text presents is one of significance: What are the implications of the Edny/Huntly pairing? What does it suggest about their perception of the world around them, about their moral—or immoral—natures, about the motivations that compel them to return to the elm tree where Waldegrave was slain, or about the psychological drives that propel them into the wilderness of Norwalk? The wilderness through which Huntly and the other characters wander is both a literal and a symbolic landscape. The caves, cataracts, and darkened dells of Norwalk through which Edny and Huntly sleepwalk are representative of their tangled psychological landscapes.
But Edgar Huntly is much more than a study of warped perspective and mental darkness; it is also one of the first fictional narratives in American literature to deal explicitly with Native American border conflict. Although Huntly’s Indians are stereotypical portraits of savages, it is important to keep in mind that these are Huntly’s Indians, not necessarily Brown’s. With family members the victims of an Indian attack, Huntly has understandable—if not reasonable—antipathy for the Delaware Indians in that region of Pennsylvania. Behind Brown’s novel lies the history of misuse and trickery of Native Americans—exemplified in the notorious “Walking Purchase” treaty of 1737, in which colonists conned the Delaware Indians out of twice the land in a treaty that they thought they were ceding over—and the character of Old Deb in the novel adds depth to the dimensionless portrayal of the Indians as seen through Huntly’s eyes. The motivations toward revenge that drive Huntly are not unlike those that drive the Indian raiders under Deb’s influence. The frontier violence that results turns into bloodshed, but the psychological forces that compel the parties to violence are neither simple nor morally unambiguous.
A careful reading of Edgar Huntly, then, suggests that, although swiftly composed, the novel is a complex, thoughtfully constructed, and layered narrative whose themes revolve around several key issues: tensions between Native American and United States interests along the frontier; the moral and psychological ambiguities at the center of human nature; the violence inherent in nature and in humankind; and the nature of perception as it relates to the clash of madness and reason, obsession, and rationality. Ultimately, the themes in Edgar Huntly, as with so many murder mysteries over the past two centuries, can all be traced back to questions of motive—an oft emphasized term throughout the novel. Indeed, it is a question of motive that opens the novel, as Huntly asks two pivotal questions about the murder of Waldegrave early in the first chapter: “Once more I asked, who was his assassin? By what motives could he be impelled to a deed like this?” In pursuit of answers to these questions, Huntly confronts his double in Clithero Edny and descends into a maelstrom of violence in the Pennsylvania wilderness. At the end of the novel, Huntly offers answers to each of these two questions, but even as he gives his answers, one can’t help but believe that as he weaves his narrative he is staring at a reflection of himself.
Eric Carl Link is the author of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century and is the co-author of Neutral Ground: New Traditionalism and the American Romance Controversy. He is the Hugh Shott Professor of English at North Georgia College & State University, where he teaches American literature.